Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Alpha

The name Zeiss Ikon is somewhat iconic in camera manufacture and the Contaflex series was one of their longer running models. I had only one Zeiss in my collection, a Contina, and I decided it was time I added to that and so I purchased a Contaflex III in a non-working state.

These pictures can also be viewed full size here.

My Camera

As I said above I bought this camera in state described as ‘shutter working but erratic’ and paid £4 for it. When it turned up I tried the shutter and found that I could turn the film advance and bring the mirror down to its viewing position, and the shutter would cock, but when I released the shutter it made a click, but didn’t actually open.

I decided I’d need to get into the shutter to have a look at what the problem was, so I removed the front lens element (which is interchangeable on this model) and the trim and then a plate which held another lens element. As I undid the screws on the plate, I heard the camera open and close the shutter!

With that plate and the shutter speed selector plate off the camera I found that the shutter basically worked, although the slow speeds were a bit reluctant to finish. I therefore removed and cleaned the speed regulator (which was exactly the same as one I did a couple of days ago in a Franka Super Frankarette because the shutter is basically the same), and once that was replaced it worked perfectly. When I put the shutter back together however, it stopped working and I wasn’t sure what the problem was.

After a few minutes removing the outer components, and examining the shutter I found that the shutter speed plate didn’t sit completely flat on the shutter, and discovered that it had to be slightly moved to allow one of the speed setting pins to correctly align with it’s slot in the speed plate. Once that was correctly aligned the top components went back on and the shutter worked again.

As I was refitting the outer rings which set the aperture and shutter speed, I found that the speed indicator dial and the aperture dial which show the settings to the user had been incorrectly assembled when I removed them, and the back indicator ring was unscrewed. So I think the situation was that another user had taken the camera apart and wasn’t sure how the parts went back together and mis-assembled it. This was further confirmed when I found that the rewind knob was unscrewed and loose.

With the shutter correctly working I had a look at the rest of the camera. It’s a little bit battered cosmetically with a bit of brassing on the front of the prism, some paint loss and a small amount of corrosion on the bottom. Also for some reason the strap lugs are missing (probably victims of the same dismantling which stopped the shutter working) and the viewfinder has a bit of dirt in, but not an excessive amount considering the age of the camera.

All in all, with the shutter repaired I think this is a decent camera, and the £4 I paid for it makes it excellent value for money.

Zeiss Ikon Contaflex Description

The Contaflex series was made by Zeiss for a long time and encompassed many model variations. This model, the Contaflex III, was made in 1956 and was essentially the same as the original Contaflex I made in 1953, but with the ability to remove and exchange the front lens element.

The camera is a conventional SLR shape, with a prism and mirror to allow the picture to be focused by viewing through the taking lens, but has a leaf shutter rather than the more conventional focal plane shutter fitted to most SLR’s. The leaf shutter is fitted behind the lens and in front of the mirror, so this makes the design more complex, because when the image is viewed to focus and compose, the shutter needs to be open to allow the light to be directed to the viewfinder, but obviously this would allow light onto the film. In the Contaflex this problem is solved with a light shield which covers the film gate as the mirror is dropped down in place, protecting the film from being fogged while the viewfinder is in use. The video below shows how this works as the film is advanced and then the shutter fired.

The other thing you may notice from the video is that after the exposure the mirror stays in the up position, blocking the viewfinder. In order to compose the picture you have to wind the film forward to the next exposure which also winds the mirror down.

The exposure is controlled by the Prontor Reflex shutter and Pantar f/2.8 45mm lens. The shutter has a range of speeds from 1 second to 1/300 sec, which sounds quite low to us these days, but at the time the camera was made, when film was typically 100 ASA for black & white and as low as 32 ASA for colour, it was fine. The lens is f/2.8 at it’s brightest, and can be stopped down to f/22 in really bright conditions.

In common with many cameras at the time, the shutter / aperture combination is locked together in the EV or Exposure Value system. This was a recently introduced system in the 1950’s and allowed the exposure to be set and then several different combinations of the same exposure could be selected with a simple twist of the locked shutter speed / aperture control. This is no different to the modern ‘program shift’ mode offered with most DSLR cameras.

Once the exposure has been measured with a light meter, the aperture and shutter speed required is set as usual, although it may be necessary to press the button on the aperture scale to unlock the two dials. Once set, the aperture and shutter speed can be moved together and will maintain the same exposure but with different values. For example, f/11 at 1/30sec is the same as f/5.6 at 1/125sec or f22 at 1/8sec in terms of exposure although each would give a different picture. It is up to the photographer to know the relative effect of opening the aperture or slowing the shutter speed on the picture they are going to take.

As I said earlier, the front element of the lens can be removed by pressing and holding the small red lever at the bottom of the lens and twisting the front element off. There were several different front lenses made for the Contaflex III which would change the focal length, maximum f stop and / or closest focusing point.

The film is advanced with a knob at the top of the camera, which is more awkward to use than the fast action lever which many cameras, including the Contaflex had in later models. There is also a frame counter system build into the film advance which keeps track of the exposure count, and on the other side of the camera a film type reminder is built into the rewind knob.

The viewfinder is fitted with a central split image focusing aid which I always find welcome.

Update: As it turns out, although it was sold as a Contaflex III this camera is actually a slightly cheaper Contaflex Alpha model. I didn’t actually spot this but a reader, having viewed the pictures above spotted the difference any let me know. I’ve left the bulk of the text in the article the same because most of it is relevant since it is written with reference to the camera I have, but to set the record straight this is a Contaflex Alpha.

Zeiss Contaflex III specifications

  • Zeiss Ikon Contaflex III 35mm slr
  • Leaf Shutter fitted behind lens and in front of mirror
  • 1sec to 1/300sec + B speeds
  • Non instant return mirror – must be wound down for each exposure
  • EV exposure system
  • 45mm f/2.8 Pantar lens fitted – interchangeable front element
  • Self timer option
  • X & M flash sync at all speeds
  • Flash sync socket
  • Split image focusing aid in viewfinder
  • Frame counter around film advance
  • Bottom half of case removes for loading of film
  • Table stand built into case
  • Film type reminder built into rewind knob
  • Camera ser no: M6066
  • Lens ser no: 3357643
  • Manual available here

10 Comments

  • Hi Simon,
    Good review and I admit I didn’t look at the photos closely until I read your comments about the Reflex Prontor shutter. That is not a Contaflex III—it’s one of the cheaper Pantar lens models, it is in fact a Contaflex Alpha. The Contaflex III, like all other Contaflexes fitted with a Synchro Compur shutter, has a Carl Zeiss Tessar, in this case a 50mm f/2.8 version like all the unit focus Compur models. The III is one of the less common models, and the similar IV which followed it was a much better seller possibly due to its built in meter. Any of the Tessar models are capable of first class results although the latest models have a modified version of the Tessar that is exceptionally sharp.
    Cheers
    Brett

    Reply
    • Hi Brett

      Thanks for clarifying that – I admin I’m not that familiar with the Contaflex series and since it was sold as a Contaflex III and it seemed superficially to be one from my Internet research I assumed it was. I’ll amend the post. Thanks again.

      Reply
      • You deserve acknowledgement for being willing to delve into the camera, because the Contaflex has a reputation for being rather intimidating to work on. In general I’ve found them to be nowhere near as bad or difficult to work on as is generally considered to be the case (and I’ve worked on well in excess of a dozen). I’d suggest finding yourself an example of the Super model, being one of the easier ones to work on, or alternatively a Super BC or S with a working meter. The last two will give you very accurate TTL metering and spectacular results from their re-computed 50mm Tessars. All of the above also accept the Pro Tessar lenses giving you the ability to fit the 35mm wide angle and 85mm telephoto, both of which are excellent performers. I have most of the Contaflex accessories and lenses and three magazine backs and use them once or twice a week.
        Cheers
        Brett

        Reply
        • It turns out the Alpha (as I now know it to be) needs a bit more love because there is a light leak somewhere in the system which protects the film as the shutter is opened to focus/compose. Looks like I’ll be learning how they work in more intimate detail soon 🙂

          I’m going to read your four articles on camera repair when I get time – should be useful

          thanks
          Simon

          Reply
      • Hi Simon,
        I confess I have confined my repair activities to the Tessar models with the Compur shutter, though I have sorted most of those which is a few types. But I have an interest in SLRs with lens shutters in general and own a few different makes and models, not the least of which being my 500C/M (and interestingly, it was in fact Zeiss’s successful installation of a reflex version of the Synchro Compur into their Contaflexes which inspired them to abandon the focal plane shutter of their 1600F/1000F models and go to lens shutters with their new 500C). So I do have a couple of observations to make.

        Firstly the good thing about the lens shutter is that if it is working properly (and it sounds like you have it running pretty well) you should not have to worry about that leaking light. In fact the design of these SLRs means that just about the only place light can leak in is past that rear shutter, or “capping plate” as Zeiss used to call it. So ensure that when the camera is wound it is fully seated against the rear of the body.

        The second point (often overlooked) is that the timing between the two shutters should always be checked. If the relationship has changed due to wear or abuse you might have a bit of overlap there.

        Earlier models like the I and II have quite conservative timing. When you wind those, there’s quite a delay between the capping plate seating and the front shutter blades beginning to open for reflex viewing through the finder. Later models such as the Super series (all of them, Super B etc) have rather less generous separation in their gear timing. All it takes is a bit of wear in the drivetrain and it’s possible to see the shutter blades parting just before the capping plate has fully seated. And in daylight this can be a problem. It’s adjustable and easily fixed but is important to check. You simply need to very slowly wind the camera until the capping plate has fully closed against its seat in the body. At this point you should carefully check the shutter blades. If they’ve parted, even slightly, the capping plate is running late and in certain situations (light level, direction of lens to sun, speed of winding camera etc.) you’ll get some fogging.

        You’ll need to keep a little tension against the wind knob as you check this. If you let go of the knob the mechanism won’t release without being fully cocked, but because of the gear backlash it may unwind very slightly, hence, once the capping plate has shut fully, you should cease winding it so you may inspect the shutter blades however you will need to maintain a constant tension on the wind knob while you check for overlap for this reason.

        Any questions feel free to ask. I haven’t sorted a Reflex Prontor yet but I’m sure I could if I needed to and can likely advise of required. 😉
        Cheers
        Brett

        Reply
        • Thanks for the helpful info Brett. In the case of my Contaflex it’s the back capping plate which isn’t shutting properly. I’ve taken the back off and held the camera up to a strong light with the shutter cocked and the mirror down and I can see the light through the back plate. When the shutter is cocked the plate isn’t hard against it’s seat but has a gap around it.

          Reply
          • It would not surprise me if a careless or curious owner’s fingers have contributed to this problem. I have seen it more than once. I’m not sure how much time you’d prefer to invest in this but if you are so inclined, one relatively easy and fast possibility is to remove the lens from the front and with the body half cocked (capping plate closed but mirror still up) take a peek in through the front to see if you can spot any damage to the actuating assembly for the plate. With judicious use of tweezers etc. if it’s only a bent component you might just be able to straighten it out this way, I did this with a Bessamatic some years ago. If the components are not in the right state, you could check it with the body fired. The capping plate will be retracted but you may be able to gently ease it down enough against spring pressure to investigate this way…
            Cheers
            Brett

          • Again thanks for that advice Brett – I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to look at it this weekend.

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